By Tim Johnson McClatchy
HUIMANGUILLO, Mexico _ The big-time gasoline thieves had already come and gone during the wee hours, filling their tanker trucks with stolen fuel and then fleeing. Then dawn broke, and word spread that a crime gang had again tapped into a gasoline pipeline, and it was spewing fuel into a ditch. At first, only a few farmers showed up, carrying plastic jerry cans.
Then dozens. Then even more. All were eager to collect what spilled fuel they could. Gasoline fumes filled the air, and puddles of rainwater and gasoline spread amid a drizzle.
“This is a gift from God,” said one of the farmers, who gave only his first name, Frank, as he partially filled a 5-gallon white plastic container with gasoline. Mexico is plagued by rampant energy theft. In the first eight months of this year, 7.5 million barrels went missing, a rate of about 30,000 52-gallon barrels a day, enough to fill a fleet of more than 100 tanker trucks.
Organized crime groups are behind much of the theft, which occurs along a network of pipelines that carry gasoline, diesel, crude oil, natural gas and petrochemicals around the nation. The problem just keeps getting worse. In 2000, Mexico tallied 155 cases of fuel theft from pipelines. Since then, it’s been a steady climb. In 2012, thieves drilled 1,635 illegal taps.
That number grew to 2,614 in 2013. This year, the number of illegal taps is expected to top 3,000. Constant spills caused by the theft spoil the environment and rob Mexicans of a valuable resource. But the piracy also may crimp Mexico’s success in opening its energy sector to international investment. In early 2015, for the first time in eight decades, Mexico will allow foreign companies to bid for concessions and explore for energy on its soil or in its offshore waters.
To deal with the piracy, and a web of corruption surrounding stolen fuel, foreign companies operating in Mexico will have to budget for high security costs. Weak penalties for stealing oil and gasoline have exacerbated the problem.